There's no one better in the NBA at hitting off-balance shots than Dirk Nowitzki. You can play him as close as the referees will allow, defend his tendencies to perfection, and he'll still hit a one-legged fadeaway in your grill at the shot clock buzzer.
Nicolas Batum has seen Nowitzki hit that kind of shot time and time again, but hitting leaning jumpers that would be low-percentage shots for almost anyone else in the league isn't the craziest thing Nic has seen Dirk do.
"I saw (Nowitzki) practice in the offseason five, six years ago," said Batum. "I was in Italy. It was crazy. He was with Basketball Without Borders. This guy, I know why he's still good now because he works out so hard. In a different way, because he do some crazy (stuff). He walks on his hands. Up and down the court walking on his hands to work on his balance."
Maybe that's why Nowitzki is one of the best in the game at getting off quality shots while seemingly falling down. And maybe that's why Batum will spend much of his energy during the first round series against the Mavericks trying to make Nowitzki shoot those very same shots that have made him one of the most difficult players to guard.
"I watch a lot of film about (Nowitzki)," said Batum. "Just try to stop him. He got a lot of strengths, but he's got some weakness, so I try to learn his weakness. He's going to be tough to guard, especially in playoff mode. He just wants a ring. He's got everything but the ring. I know he wants a ring, so it's going to be tough to guard him."
Batum, as we've often seen throughout his career in Portland, is usually Nate McMillan's go-to guy when it comes to covering the opposing team's best offensive threat, and that's not likely to change when the Trail Blazers and Mavericks meet in Game 1 Saturday. Though Batum is no longer in the starting lineup, he still possesses the qualities that make him better than most when it comes to slowing down a guy like Nowitzki.
"I think the big thing is (Batum's) length and his ability to guard on the perimeter as well as in the post," said McMillan. "Most guys that match up with Dirk, they can't guard him in the post because they're too small or they can't guard him on the perimeter because they're too big. Nic has the ability to guard him in the post, with some help, but also if he steps out on the perimeter he can guard him, because he's capable of putting the ball on the floor."
He's also capable of wearing guys out, especially one-on-one, which is why Batum won't be the only Trail Blazer tasked with defending Dirk come Saturday night. In fact, just about everyone will get a crack at 10-time All-Star before the series is said a done.
"Gerald will play (Nowitzki) because his physical play, meaning his strength, will allow him to play Dirk," said McMillan. "With our defense and some of our schemes, Gerald will be on him, Gerald will switch on him, LaMarcus will be on him, Camby will see some time on him. Even Brandon could see some time on him because of some of the things we feel we have to do in order to cover some of their sets."
So Batum, while he's likely to guard Dirk more often than his teammates, isn't going it alone, and that's just fine with Nic, who said Nowitzki is his favorite player in the NBA but that he hates defending him because "he's too good." But Batum is driven by a desire which trumps his disdain for guarding Nowitzki.
"I don't want to go back to France in two weeks," said Batum. "I really don't. I'm good here."
If he can be good or better at making Nowitzki's life difficult, Nic just might get his wish.